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As a kid, my mother taught us to put an orange on the seder plate as an act of feminism. Around that same time, she gave me a hot pink T-shirt with rainbow sparkle letters that read, “Anything boys can do, girls can do better.” It was the ’80s and my passions for girl power, rainbows and Jewish rituals were ignited.
My mom, and many other feminists, passed on the famous origin story of the orange, that Dr. Susannah Heschel was lecturing in Miami, and, while she was speaking of feminism, an Orthodox man supposedly shouted that “a woman belongs on the bimah [pulpit] as much as an orange belongs on the seder plate.” And so, as feminists, we all added the orange as an act of resistance; a symbol of women’s rights.
But, alas, that story that I had heard and retold for decades was a myth
(IFF/Philadlephia’s Rabbi Robyn Frisch discusses the myth here). And while I was studying at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, I was quite surprised as the story was debunked by my rabbi and I learned what REALLY happened.
It was the 1980s, and Heschel was speaking at the Hillel Jewish student group at Oberlin College. While there, she came across a Haggadah written by a student that included a story of a young girl who asks her rabbi if there is room in Judaism for a lesbian. The rabbi in the story replies in anger, “There’s as much room for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for a crust of bread on the seder plate!”—implying that lesbians are impure and are a violation of Judaism.
The next year, Heschel put an orange on her seder plate and shared that she chose the orange “because it suggests the fruitfulness for all Jews when lesbians and gay men are contributing and active members of Jewish life.”
The seeds of the orange, like other items on the seder plate, symbolize rebirth and renewal. And some folks have taken on the tradition of spitting the seeds to remind us to spit out the hatred experienced by all marginalized members of our communities.
Since the addition of the orange, other symbols have been added to the traditional seder plate (watch our fun video guide for what to put on a seder plate). Some vegetarians and vegans have added a “paschal yam,” in place of the shank bone, which traditionally represents the paschal lamb. Others have included olives for peace in the Middle East. And some have placed potato peels on their plates to commemorate Jews who starved during the Holocaust.
Most recently I learned that members of Rabbis For Human Rights, who work to support the under-paid and over-worked tomato pickers in Florida, have included a tomato as a symbol of contemporary slavery.
“We who believe in FREEDOM, cannot rest until it comes.” This year, as I prepare to lead the Passover seder for my family and friends, I am emboldened to add these various symbols to our plate as reminders of who is not free. What segments of my community are still enslaved? What human rights issues must be addressed?
I am empowered to take action and commit to do the social justice work to bring equality and dignity to everyone. In the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “No one is free until we are all free.”
I need to apologize. I’ve been quiet. I’ve been in my isolated bubble of white-straight-privilege and been perfectly fine in there. Don’t get me wrong, I was outraged, but I was also paralyzed by inaction, and quiet about it. I told myself I was doing really great work by helping people turned away from Jewish communities because of their spouse’s religion. I thought that was my form of social action, or at least that’s how I justified my silence (or maybe even apathy). But mass shooting after mass shooting I’ve gotten outraged for a few days and then gone on with my life. I’ve called my representatives and written letters once or twice, and then I’ve gotten busy and stopped.
I am sorry. I have sinned against my fellow humans by complacency. I have sinned against God by failing to act to save God’s creations. I am sorry.
When I woke up early on Sunday June 12 to the news that 20 people had been killed at a nightclub in Orlando, I was outraged. I shook my husband awake saying “there’s been another shooting, it’s just awful.” And then I went out in the living room to care for my young children who have no capacity for this kind of news, but while we played with blocks I couldn’t shake the pit in my stomach or stop the tears from welling in my eyes.
As the number of murdered humans rose to 49, my sadness grew. As details started emerging about the location and circumstances, the anger grew. All day as I fed my kids and entertained them along with my sister who was in town, I tried to sort through my feelings.
The same thoughts kept flooding my mind:
100 people were shot. By 1 man.
A gay nightclub.
How is this possible?
Do I know anyone there?
Does anyone I know, know anyone there?
100 people shot by 1 man.
How could this be possible?
And then I thought about it: Of course it’s possible. It’s possible because of people like me who go through their day sipping on cold brew and checking Facebook and watching Netflix and potty training kids and being busy at work and having family problems and and and and…
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve called my state representatives and written letters. Could I have called more and written more? Yes. Can I do more? Absolutely.
The violent act of murder and hate in Orlando on Sunday was the sound of the shofar I needed to hear to wake up and stand up. But to do what, I had no idea. I spent the evening and following day signing petitions, calling my friends, especially checking in with my LGBTQ friends whose trauma was only something I could begin to understand.
I attended a vigil on Monday evening at LA City Hall. I stood there, a straight, white, Jewish, upper-middle-class woman in a crowd of thousands of LGBTQ people and allies. I heard speech after speech exclaiming the personal trauma that people were feeling in the aftermath of the shooting, and I started to get it. I heard things like, “we’ve fought for our lives before and we’ll do it again,” and “we are singing for our lives.”
Since last Sunday I’ve wanted to scream from the rooftops “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” but there’s so much to do that I don’t know where to start.
On Monday I started with mourning. Mourning the 49 victims and 53 injured bodies and millions of souls. Mourning the end of the privileged life I’ve led in Scottsdale and Portland and Pasadena where I never sat in a school lockdown or knew someone killed by a hate crime. I mourned the ideal future I had imagined for my children, a future free from hate and violence.
I took Rabbi Denise Eger’s mourning prayer to heart as I listened to people speak the names of the 49 people murdered in Orlando on June 12 at the Pulse nightclub.
And now what? What do I do? What can I say? I know now I do not have the privilege of keeping silent. I have a voice and I need to use it, but who am I to stand up?
I am Moses saying “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?” I am Moses saying, “The Israelites would not listen to me, a man of impeded speech, why should Pharaoh listen to me?” (Shemot 7)
I have let my privilege and excuses be my impediment. But now I am here.
Hineini. Here I am.
I am here, screaming from the rooftops: ENOUGH.
I am standing up as an ally to all of my LGBTQ friends.
I am standing up as a clergy person who has a voice to comfort but also to empower.
I am standing up as a mom who wants a better safer future for her children.
I am standing up as a director at an organization that helps people who have been marginalized.
I am standing up as a person who lost a friend to suicide by gun he had easy access to.
I am standing up as a human being.
Who’s with me? Who will walk with me through the wilderness of gun control legislation and LGBTQ rights and human rights and freedom of religion and freedom to marry and and and and?
I have been quiet. But I’m not quiet anymore. There’s so much we can do. What will you do?
The following is a guest blog post by Rabbi Evan Moffic, who is not a member of our staff but his wife, Rabbi Ari Moffic (Director of IFF/Chicago) is!
Win a copy of Rabbi Evan Moffic’s new book, What Every Christian Needs to Know About Passover!
Nothing brings people together like food. It is no accident, then, that among the most popular holiday for interfaith families is Passover. It is not only popular because it features prodigious amounts of food. It is popular—and meaningful—because of the spiritual message it conveys. This message matters for Christians and Jews. And it’s a message that can bring interfaith families closer together.
I believe so powerfully in this message that I wrote a book about it this year. The book was published by Abington Press, and it has spent several weeks as the top-selling book on Jewish holidays. Clearly, the Passover message resonates. Here’s why.
1. We are all searching for freedom: On Passover we recall the way God led the Israelites from slavery to freedom. We see the tools God gave them to rediscover that freedom in every generation by asking questions, praying, celebrating and retelling the story. As we do so, we shed light on the journey of our own lives. We ask ourselves where and how we might be enslaved. Are we enslaved to our possessions, our work, our addictions, our desire to please others?
2. We can all learn from one another: I passionately believe that religious and spiritual people can learn from traditions different from our own—perhaps especially from those traditions that are our next-door neighbor traditions, which is how I think of Judaism and Christianity. As a rabbi, I have found great inspiration in the description of love from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. My own prayer life has been transformed by what I have learned from pastors and Christian writers. Quite often, I learn more about my own faith when I encounter it with new questions and concerns prompted by those who do not share it.
I believe the same growth can happen for Christians interested in deepening their own faith. Passover in particular holds spiritual invitations that can speak powerfully to Christians. Passover was observed by Jesus. It is a holiday centered around family, food and freedom. It is accessible and relevant to Christians of all denominations.
3. We can see ourselves in the story: In a recent class I asked members of my synagogue what the Exodus story meant to them. Did it affect their self- understanding? Could they see themselves in the story? All of them said yes. They frequently connected the Exodus with their family history. Many had grandparents and great-grandparents who emigrated from Europe to the United States. They fled poverty and persecution to build a better in life here. America was their Promised Land. Europe was their Egypt.
More recent Jewish immigrants echoed this message. Between 1967 and 1991, almost half of the entire Jewish population of the Soviet Union left for freedom to Israel, America and other Western countries. They saw their journey as an exodus from oppression to freedom.
In churches where I have led Passover seders, I’ve asked the same question. Some draw on their family history. More often, however, participants saw the Exodus in the context of their spiritual journeys. A participant who became a Christian later in life saw crossing the Red Sea as a symbol for baptism. He had fled the oppression of his past life for freedom as a believer and follower of Jesus. Some women saw the Exodus story as a paradigm for gaining freedom from the past and strengthening their role in the Church.
Regardless of who we are, Passover reminds us we can gain our freedom. We can become the person we are meant to be.
Evan Moffic is the Rabbi of Congregation Solel in Highland Park, IL, a community of 500 families on the North Shore of Chicago. He graduated from Stanford University in 2000 and was ordained by Hebrew Union College in 2006. He appears regularly on CNN and Fox News and writes for the Huffington Post, Beliefnet and his blog at www.rabbi.me. His first book, Words of Wisdom: From the Torah to Today, is a spiritual introduction to Judaism. His second book, What Every Christian Needs to Know About Passover, makes Passover come alive today for people of all faiths.
One of the things I like about the Passover seder at my aunt’s house is how we incorporate multiple languages and cultures. Specifically, toward the end of the seder, it is a family tradition to sing Hatikvah (the Israeli national anthem) and God Bless America. When my cousin married a man from Togo (a country in West Africa), we also added the Togolese national anthem. So now we’re singing in Hebrew, English, and French!
I didn’t even realize that the tradition of singing God Bless America began with her great-grandmother who was an immigrant from Eastern Europe. I never had the chance to meet her, but my cousin recently told me that she would insist on singing this American standard at the seder each year. She wanted to express how grateful she was to be here. (I wonder if she knew it was written by a Jew, who was inspired by similar sentiments?)
Now if that isn’t a statement about freedom, I don’t know what is!
In fact, the whole exercise seems like a symbol of freedom to me. We are free to speak in whatever language we want, free to practice the religion of our choosing, and free to marry who we love (at least here in Massachusetts). Not all of us attending the seder were raised Jewish (both my cousin and I intermarried), but we all come together on Passover to celebrate our freedom in song.